All the World’s a Stage
C Photo, vol.2, n. 9, 2014
‘All the World’s a Stage’ by David Campany
When patrons visited the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazieto to see Leonardo da Vinci’s progress on The Last Supper, very often they found the artist was not there. He would be out in the street trying to make sketches of fleeting gestures to be incorporated into his fresco. If he’d had a camera, he would have used it. But it doesn’t mean he would have ceased to be a painter.
It is often remarked that street photography is the only genre entirely specific to the medium. While photography borrows, interprets and mashes up all of art’s other genres – landscape, still life, portraiture – it has added this one of its own. Strictly speaking, what is unique about it is not ‘the street’ as such, but the way the camera encourages the possibility of ‘hunting’ for pictures. A photographer can venture into the unpredictable world and capture impressions quickly. The hunter can of course hunt anywhere; it’s just that the modern world that gave rise to photography also gave rise to the bustling modern streets where the hunter’s pickings are richest. But not all streets are bustling. As the photographer Jason Evans put it recently:
If you’re walking down the street and you get to the edge of town, and the street turns into a road and you’re in the countryside, then you hang a left and you’re in a lane, and you walk down the lane and you photograph a tree… is that still street photography?
The closer you scrutinize the concept the more vague it becomes. Moreover this vagueness seems to produce two seemingly opposed reactions among its practitioners. One reaction is to attempt to protect the genre by fixing its conventions as a set of rules: one must not make contact with the people being photographed; one must not use artificial light; one must not set things up, and so on. (These injunctions are not really the preserve of street photography per se: they derive from one strand of documentary photography in its traditional form.) While rules in art inevitably lead to stagnation, making street photographs in this established way can still produce extraordinary and relevant pictures, simply because the world as subject matter is forever changing. This is what makes classical street photography both new and not new.
Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub (2006). Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.
The other response is to bend, break or disregard any such rules. The pre-planned, lit, staged, and self consciously ‘arty’ photograph of the street might be an extreme manifestation of this. Jeff Wall’s In front of a nightclub (2006) has a theatricality and artifice that the mind-set of contemporary art understands quite easily. Indeed it is largely through conspicuous construction that photography has become widely accepted as art. The far less obvious methods of the classical street photographer have given the art world more of a challenge. Here is the photographer Paul Graham:
The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableau, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? Or for that matter what Stephen Shore created with his deadpan image of a crossroads in El Paso? Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity knows they did something there, and something utterly remarkable at that, but… what? How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation – the making of something by the artist – can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?
Before this all gets too polarized, let us consider the space between ‘artifice’ and ‘purity’, because it is in this grey area that much of the most interesting street photography is taking place, and for fairly obvious reasons. One of the long-term consequences of living in a saturated image culture is that photography penetrates consciousness and the very fabric of the world around us. For example, contemporary architecture is now modeled in photo-realist computer programmes, and is designed to look good in images, or even to be experienced primarily as image; citizens carry cameras that allow them to document their daily experiences and manage their reputations online; streets are the sites of intensive advertising; cities and citizens are monitored by surveillance cameras. All of this makes the city a profoundly self-conscious ‘image theatre’, and this is bound to affect the way photographers operate.
Paul Graham, Wall Street 19th April 2010, 12.46.55 pm, 2010
Paul Graham’s project The Present comprises diptychs and triptychs shot in New York City. Taken moments apart, each frame is – like so much urban experience – theatrical, pensive and fragmentary. But Graham’s images also highlight the unphotographed and ineffable moments between exposures, into which experience is allowed to escape. Where the exemplary single photograph often puts itself forward as whole and wholly adequate, Graham’s micro-sequences reintroduce a humble acceptance that the medium’s failings are as much a source of its fascination as its capabilities.
Jason Evans, from the series NYLPT, 2004-2012
Jason Evans pursues something similar through very different means. He runs his black and white film through his camera twice or more, in a variety of cities: New York, London, Paris, Tokyo. The overlays occur entirely by chance, combining local and international itineraries that conjure up the lucid dream world of a global streetwalker. If this is street photography it is not a matter of catching people off guard or exploiting the way the camera can pick out and force a picture, or make a ‘point’. Neither is it a matter of staging or setting things up with a scripted plan.
Polly Braden, Paternoster Square (2006), from the series London’s Square Mile (2006-2014)
Take a look at Paternoster Square (2006) from Polly Braden’s long-term study of London’s financial district. In front of Thomas Heatherwick’s Vents (a piece of sculptural eye-candy commissioned for a generic plaza) a woman in sunglasses carries two cardboard boxes. Perhaps she’s hustling from one office to another. The light, composition and color palette look as if they may have been tweaked by an advertising agency. But that’s how the world increasingly looks: as if it were expecting a camera. Braden simply picks her spot and waits, more fisher than hunter. She has a way of hiding a little, but of letting her subjects know she is hiding. There is usually an exchange of glances (she is not afraid of eye contact – she just doesn’t like it in her photos too much). Occasionally that exchange is enough to end things and no image is taken. But more often than not a kind of flirtation unfolds, without seduction or manipulation. People pose a little, but not in a photographic way. They become just self-conscious enough to accommodate the photographer and the camera, while carrying on with whatever they are doing. The sharp distinction we often want to make between documentary and staged photos makes it very difficult to grasp this realm, but this is precisely where so much of modern life takes place. Between the anonymity of the crowd and accountability to others.
George Georgiou, Hakkari, from the series Fault Lines/Turkey/East/West, 2007
Something equally complex is happening in ‘Hakkari’ by George Georgiou, from the series Fault Lines/Turkey/East/West (2007). Georgiou’s project is a response to the social, religious and economic tensions facing modern Turkey, but most of his pictures approach the subject indirectly, with a precarious balancing of landscape, streetscape and portraiture, often within a single frame. This world seems like a montage of unplanned coexistences. The formal unity of Georgiou’s compositions only serves to emphasize the unexpected poetry of a place under duress. He was on the roof of a building to shoot the town with its mountainous background. A man appeared next door and started watering his roof with a hose. The photograph does not (cannot) explain what is going on but it presents this micro-drama for us to contemplate and perhaps decipher.
Mimi Mollica, from the series En Route To Dakar, 2007-8
Mimi Mollica’s epic series En Route To Dakar (2007-8) follows the first major highway built to connect Senegal’s capital with the country’s vast hinterland. The square format immediately separates his images from the easy clichés of widescreen road trips, forcing a very different kind of observation. Mollica’s work is full of documentary detail about a newly industrializing nation but the simple schema of his compositions makes the road appear as a stage populated by wandering players, with a tacky set designed by international capitalism. Senegal is expecting to be photographed. Mollica obliges but not in the anticipated way.
Mitra Tabrizian, from the series Another Country, 2010
Mollica’s approach to transition can be contrasted with the Mitra Tabrizian’s Another Country. In the project’s signature image we see young girls outside a Mosque. Tabrizian explains:
It is a Shia mosque in east London where, among other activities, they run weekend classes for young children, teaching religious principles: oneness of God, justice, prophethood, guidance, resurrection. I spent a few days observing what the girls do at break time. What was noticeable was that they don’t play. They stood around looking lost, as if they don’t know what to do. Or they don’t know what to do with the rigid education imposed on them at such an early age. The lone figures stood out: perhaps they will one day question and resist the community’s uncompromising beliefs and rules, such as requiring young girls to spend their weekends this way.
The sense of theatre here is calculatedly awkward, as in a Beckett play or a gauchely staged tableau. The pictorial stiffness expresses the psychological and social stiffness. But as Tabrizian hints, what can be experienced can perhaps be acted upon.
Stephen Waddell, Arbutus Corridor, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.
In conclusion it should be noted that all these photographers are highly attuned to color as it appears in the world, and becomes image. (The exception is the black and white of Jason Evans’ NYLPT, but you can see from Evans’s other work that he’s one of the great colourists of contemporary photography). Color is clearly a vital part of everyday life and our perception of it, but it is a deeply enigmatic signifier. Color doesn’t mean in any obvious way and yet we respond to it, sometimes very intensely. It has its own elusive and wild drama. Part of the pleasure of Stephen Waddell’s Arbutus Corridor (2009) is its humble epiphany of color – those particular reds and greens observed and gathered together in a photograph for unlikely pictorial delight. What does it mean? It means that the world can look like that and a photographer can picture it. But color will always elude symbolic or dramatic containment. It is always excessive. Even when it is captured it can’t be tamed. Arbutus Corridor is the final image in Waddell’s aptly titled book Hunt and Gather (2011). These street photographers do hunt, but what they photograph is not ‘prey’. Their subjects were already images, waiting to be noticed.
First published in C Photo, vol. 2, no. 9, ‘Street-Calle’.